A month ago, I wrote on this site about an upcoming tribute concert in Beverly Hills for songwriter Richard M. Sherman, in honor of his 90th birthday. With his brother Robert B. Sherman, the two won a couple of Oscars and wrote songs for such movies as (most famously) Mary Poppins, as well as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Happiest Millionaire, The Jungle Book, Tom Sawyer, and much more, including a couple of Broadway musicals (Over There and Busker Alley), and even the pop hit "You're Sixteen" (which had a couple of hit recordings, including one by Ringo Starr.) And their most-heard song is probably, "It's a Small World" from Disneyland.
You may have read about or seen online videos from a similar tribute concert last month at the Motion Picture Academy, which was star-studded. This at the Wallis Annenberg theater last night was far-less studded, mostly made up of singers you wouldn't likely know, though there were a few of note. And it was all very well-done, and a pleasure. With the material they had to work with, it would be hard not to be.
It was not a flawless evening, nothing bad but mostly with a bunch of oddities. However the overall quality put the quibbles in the background. It was very well-produced, ran extremely smoothly, and the songs were a treat. There even was one big dance number, extremely well-done, recreating the production number, "Charlie's Place," from the Broadway musical Over There.
As I said, there were a few recognizable singers. Brent Barrett is a Broadway performer, who I've even included in a video on this site here he is the singer opposite Michael Jeter in the show-stopping number from the show Grand Hotel, for which Jeter won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Barrett did a lively rendition last night of "I Wanna Be Like You" from The Jungle Book. Pop star Melissa Manchester was held until the last number before the finale, singing a lovely version of "Feed the Birds" from Mary Poppins. Keala Settle -- who sang the Oscar-nominated song, "This is Me," in last year's, The Greatest Showman, sang a couple of songs, including a rousing rendition of "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow," which the Sherman Brothers wrote for the 1964 New York World's Fair. (Oddly, though it came only four songs before the end of the evening, she was the only performer I noted didn't stick around for the finale. It's possible she had some other engagement to get to, though that's hard to imagine.) But the most fun may have been Johnny Whitaker -- that's how he was introduced, even though it was 45 years after he starred in the movie musical Tom Sawyer (and the TV series, A Family Affair) -- and he sang, "If'n I Was God," from the film, and was terrific, getting a huge ovation.
It was a cross-collection of songs, which was both a strength and weakness. The strength was that I much-appreciate hearing a wide range of their songs, even the lesser-known ones from movies like The Slipper and the Rose, The Tigger Movie, The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band and some other pastiches that Richard Sherman wrote himself or with others. Some were extremely good, others less so, but it there was still a liveliness to them. But that also meant that a lot of their best work (for my taste) didn't get heard.
For instance, they didn't perform the song "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (though did at least play the music in the overture) and in fact only did one song from that popular score. And they only had two verses of just a single song from The Happiest Millionaire, which was their big follow-up movie musical to Mary Poppins (and the last movie Walt Disney produced), which has a terrific score. And although the orchestra played a sort of overture to Mary Poppins, they only sang three or four songs from the Sherman's most-famous movie. In fact, though the concert was titled, "Supercalifrajgillistic!", they didn't even sing that number in full, only a couple verses as part of a medley of songs with funny, made-up words. The evening's selection wasn't bad at all -- as I said, I enjoyed the mix -- but it was just...well, a bit odd. I know there are limitations in an evening like this, but I think a few extended medleys would have been in order, and at the very least they could have started the evening with some big known-song to give things a better kickstart than the two lesser-known "okay" pieces they had. To be clear, the audience seemed to enjoy it all. Because it was fun. Just...well, a bit odd. (I did speak to some others, who felt the same as I did.)
Some of the other highlights was a fun rendition of "Let's Get Together" from The Parent Trap, which was a bit of a pop hit in 1961. "She Has a Way/He Has a Way," from their musical Busker Alley -- performed here by Brent Barrett and Darcie Robert -- was extremely good. And there was a wonderfully lively version of "You're Sixteen" energetically sung wildly by Linda Hart. (In what was either pure chance, or smart directing by Bruce Kimmel, and I suspect the latter -- this is a song that in its two hit recordings was both sung by adult men, and though I know it's about a young man singing about his girlfriend, in today's environment the song could risk coming off poorly. But with a woman singing it -- and SO enthusiastically in explosive love -- about her boyfriend, it got over that hurdle.)
The lesser-known performers were all very talented, and ranged from terrific to -- well, I'd call it "Disney princess bland." My personal preference is a bit of texture in singing, but I can't complain about the professionalism and enthusiasm of it all.
On other oddity, but I understand it. They had an orchestra, the L.A. Lawyers Philiharmonic, which did a very nice job performing an overture -- but then sat on stage most of the evening while a talented five-piece combo accompanied the songs. The orchestra did play during the big dance number and for the second act opening medley of Mary Poppins. But for the rest of the evening, you just had this good orchestra sitting there onstage doing absolutely nothing. My guess is that -- as working lawyers and judges, which the conductor explained -- they have full-time jobs and didn't have the time to rehearse 30 songs, just these three pieces. And it was also likely too cumbersome to get everyone offstage and then back on (at least in the first act). So, it was probably easier to let them sit there, all night. But it was just...well, a bit odd seeing them in their chairs doing nothing. Perhaps they could have dropped a curtain in front of them or something. Not a problem, and most-happily they did a good job when called on.
(Also odd -- throughout the evening they would display on the back wall big images of the movie posters for the movies they were performing a song from. It was a smart and good touch. But oddly, they only did this for about 25% of the songs. The rest of the time, the back wall was completely blank.)
The biggest oddity of the night had nothing to do with the show but rather how the ticket situation was handled. It was all free (impressive to say the least), but they later sent out emails that you had to pick up your first-come, first-serve seats by a half-hour before the show or they'd actually give them away to stand-by. And even at that there was no guarantee you'd get in the theater, but instead an outdoor patio with the TV screen. I was fine, thankfully, with good seats -- thanks to my friend Adam Belanoff who wisely showed up early to get the seats before going to dinner! -- but it was a bit of a mess. (I heard one disgruntled patron ask an usher, "Is it always this disorganized??" And the kid replied, "I don't know, this is my first day here.") I'll leave it at that.
But all in all, it was a lovely evening -- the good much-outweighed the quibbles -- and Richard Sherman at the end seemed wonderfully happy about it all. I did have one chuckle at that. It came when the Beverly Hills Mayor told Sherman said that he had two "Special Surprises!!" from him -- the first was a proclamation wishing him a happy birthday (no, not a Richard Sherman Day or a street named after him, considering that the brothers went to Beverly Hills High, after all..., just a happy birthday proclamation) and a Key to the City, and then the second "Special Surprise!!" was a birthday cake. All I could think was, "That's very nice, and quite affectionate, but maybe tone done the "two Special Surprises!!", since you do understand this fellow has won two Oscars, is in the Songwriting Hall of Fame, has and been given the Presidential Medal of Honor.
Still, it was his home town, and Richard Sherman seemed very pleased by it all. And so was the audience.
And it ended with Richard Sherman's granddaughter Amanda Wolf singing "It's a Small World" joined later by the cast. But the song they sang wasn't how it was originally written. As Sherman has explained, it was originally a prayer for peace and played slowly, only later going up-tempo. Here he is playing it that way -- how they first wrote it.
He and his brother were right. Or write.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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